Still a-tingle from a loving review from The New York Times, the Off-Broadway musical, Little Ham, embraced as a crafty, Guys and Dolls-style Harlem "jazzical," ends its run Jan. 6, with producer Eric Krebs still exploring a commercial future for the piece.
"We are in discussions with [Broadway producers] and out of town not-for-profit theatres," Krebs told Playbill On-Line Jan. 4. "I don't think any of us believe Little Ham is finished. In a very constructive way, several of the critics saw the show for what it can become, which I thought was a very constructive kind of reviewing." The show had been scheduled to close Dec. 30, but got a one-week extension. The final weekend is sold out.
The 14-actor company (with a band of five musicians) has a commercial capitalization of $3.5 million, Krebs said, which is extremely modest compared to the mega-musicals that saturate the market.
This most recent incarnation of the Dan Owens-Judd Woldin Richard Engquist musical began in an Off-Off-Broadway arrangement by Amas Musical Theatre Nov. 14, 2001, at 99 seat Hudson Guild Theatre. Krebs initiated the show way back in 1985 and shepherded it through various drafts (including a 1987 staging at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey). He upgraded the fall Off-Off-Broadway status to its brief Off Broadway contract run, Dec. 14-Jan. 6.
The Langston Hughes-inspired musical shut down for three days Dec. 9 for revisions and reopened officially Dec. 16 after two days of previews. The goal in Off-Broadway addition was to lure press and other producers to the show. Krebs scored with a constructive, respectful and eager review by Bruce Weber of The New York Times. *
The musical is by Dan Owens (librettist), Judd Woldin (music and lyrics) and Richard Engquist (lyrics). Krebs (Broadway's It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Electra) told Playbill On-Line Dec. 3 the Depression-set musical based on the Hughes play of the same name (about the white mob putting pressure on the Harlem numbers racket) is filled with pungent characters typical of the folk who populated works by Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other Harlem Renaissance writers. During the production's brief shutdown (Dec. 10-13), a new dance number was added and some material was reshaped. Krebs got the rights to the story from the Hughes estate in 1985.
"It's fun and funny and warm and beautifully inspired by Langston's characters," Krebs said. "What first attracted me was not the story, which is substantially new by the book writer, Dan Owens. But the characters and language — the warmth, the spirit and energy of the community as Hughes wrote it."
Titled Langston Hughes's Little Ham, and billed as "a Harlem Jazzical," the musical has a book by Dan Owens, music by Judd Woldin (who composed Raisin and the current Prince and the Pauper) and lyrics by Richard Engquist (Kuni-Leml, Abie's Island Rose) and Woldin. It began previews Nov. 14 and opened its Off-Off Broadway showcase run Nov. 28.
Set in the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the work focuses on the uptown "numbers" games — betting on horses — that allow locals to dream about a better life, and how the games are threatened by a downtown mob. The white mob coerces smooth and witty Harlemite Little Ham into helping them control the games, and squeezing protection money from local businesses. But when he's assigned to rattle Tiny Lee's Beauty Shop, he's stuck between double crossing the mob or the woman he loves, Miss Tiny Lee herself. Krebs calls it a musical comedy fable — the sort of show with tap-dancing gangsters.
Eric Riley directs. Musical direction is by David Alan Bunn, choreography by Leslie Dockery, arrangements and orchestrations are by the legendary Luther Henderson. The cast includes Adrian Bailey, Ben Blake, D'Ambrose Boyd, Venida Evans, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Jerry Gallagher, Andre Garner, Danielle Greaves, Julia Lema, Stacey Sargeant, Joy Styles, Lee Summers, Richard Vida and Joe Wilson, Jr.
Designers are Edward T. Gianfrancesco (set), Bernard Grenier (costume) and Richard Latta (lighting).
Arranger-orchestrator Henderson has worked on more than two dozen Broadway productions in various capacities. For Ain't Misbehavin' he was the original pianist as well as orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor. For Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, he was the musical consultant and arranged several selections. Henderson orchestrated and co-composed Jelly's Last Jam. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1997 for orchestrating Play On!
Hudson Guild Theatre is at 441 W. 26th Street. For ticket information, call (212) 206-1515 or (212) 563-2565.
Amas Musical Theatre is a non-profit theatrical organization founded in 1968 by Rosetta LeNoire, a Broadway actress, singer and humanitarian. Known to millions as "Mother Winslow" on TV's Family Matters, LeNoire received the National Medal of Arts in 1999. Her vision for Amas ("you love" in Latin) is grounded in non-traditional, multi-racial production, education and casting. Recent Amas productions include Starmites 2001, 4 Guys Named Jose...and Una Mujer Named Maria, Reunion: A Civil War Musical.
Krebs' intimate concert of blues music, Good Time Blues, with Pat Tandy and Genovis Albright, has been extended to Feb. 25, 2002, at the John Houseman Theatre. It plays three shows a week.